Publisher's note: This post, by Ray Nothstine, was originally published in Civitas's online edition.
In a recent piece published in The American Spectator
, I made the case that despite an abundance of spending on civic education in public schools, the government is failing in this endeavor. It's quite an easy case to make. On top of the spending there has been plenty of highly centralized initiatives led by the U.S. Department of Education to improve upon a well-known crisis.
One study I highlighted in the piece noted that about 10 percent of American college graduates thought reality TV figure "Judge Judy" serves on the U.S. Supreme Court
. I'll let readers decide if that's a low enough number to count as a positive, but I suspect most won't claim that as hopeful. I don't want to rehash the article, but I do want to point out some concerning thoughts on why the collapse of civics is so damaging to our political culture and civic society.
It sounds simplistic, but the one overarching question Americans should be continually asking themselves is what is our capacity for self-government? It was a question that led to our Revolution and on that question hinges so much of the vitality and health of our Republic going forward.
If we are not educating young people on civics and American ideals, and all the evidence
suggests that, the principles that made this nation a beacon of freedom and opportunity will vanish.
Thomas Jefferson was fond of saying
that liberty ultimately rests with the people and while the American Founders disagreed on many things they were universal in their understanding that liberty requires not only a virtuous society but a knowledgeable one. "A nation that expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, expects what never was and never will be,"
declared Jefferson. Liberty resting with the people is an essential notion because government by itself certainly can't be trusted to preserve and promote the common good.
The Bill of Rights puts limits on the government, not citizens. A lot of people don't know that today
because they can't even name
many of the freedoms it protects. Shockingly, a 2017 survey reveals that 37 percent
can't even name any of the rights guaranteed in the First Amendment. Most readers are familiar with the crisis on many college campuses where speakers are shouted down or even physically attacked for simply diverging from the narrative preferred by illiberal activists.
How can citizens protect themselves or sound the alarm on some of the executive overreaches we are seeing in this Covid-19 era if they don't understand the separation of powers or other essential Constitutional principles? Is it easier to cede rights and hand over more power to the government if you have little to no understanding of those rights?
It's clear to me that parents should take a deeper interest in what schools are teaching their children in terms of civics and is that instruction enough?
One overarching solution is more school choice options that will prepare students to be good citizens and not merely schools that claim achievement by the graduation rate or if students are college-bound.
In an era where we are seeing rapidly expanding government control because of a public health crisis, an informed and equipped citizenry are vital. It takes time to cultivate freedom but freedom can be stripped rapidly, particularly from an ignorant populace.
As Benjamin Franklin noted at the end of the Constitutional Convention, "A Republic, if you can keep it?"